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Ljubljana: An Art Nouveau Treasure
by Branka Lapajne

Excerpted from Rodna Gruda, English Section December 1995

Absorbed in the cares of everyday life, pedestrians rush through the urban landscape totally oblivious to the architectural - beauty around them. The discerning observer, however, never fails to discover the hidden and even obvious architectural details of his urban environment. And yet, the same people who walk obliviously past the beauties of their own city, will look wide-eyed in wonder at the treasures of foreign cities like Paris, London or Vienna. Such is the case with Ljubljana.

Though small in size, Ljubljana has an incredible wealth of architectural beauty from various historic periods, most notably the Art Nouveau or Secessionist period. Despite the clearly visible details of Art Nouveau architecture in the inner core of the city, life-long residents express surprise when these details are revealed to them. Such was the case in the mid-1980s, when I first began to record photographically these delightful features of the urban vista. After observing my activity for awhile, a Ljubljana resident of four decades approached and inquired as to what I was doing. When I pointed out the architectural details which were clearly visible, she responded that she had never observed them before.

Two major events, exactly fifty years apart, contributed greatly to the physical appearance of Ljubljana. The first was the great earthquake of 1895, whose centennial was observed earlier this year. The second was the end of World War II and the beginning of communist rule in Slovenia and Yugoslavia.

The earthquake, which struck Ljubljana in the early hours of April 1895, caused a great building boom which, in large part, has given the city the appearance it has today. Damaged by the quake, many buildings were demolished and replaced with structures - richly decorated in the Art Nouveau style of the period. Examples of this architectural style are particularly abundant around Tromostovje and the roads leading from it, around Miklosicev park and along' Presemova ulica.

After World War Two, influenced by the politics of the day, Ljubljana was gradually pushed into the background, becoming almost a back-water. Very little was done to revitalize the city and by the mid-1980s this neglect began to take its toll. By 1985-86, the city began to assume an air of neglect. Facades of Art Nouveau period buildings began to crumble, their architectural details in imminent danger of disappearance. Fearing that if something was not done soon, this beauty would be lost forever, I began to photograph these architectural details, both to record their still visible beauty and to document this sad development.

Once again politics was to play an important role in influencing developments in Ljubljana. This time a change in the political climate, which began around 1989-91, led to a dramatic change in the city's inner core. Gradually the Art Nouveau treasures of a by-gone era began to be restored, a process which continues today. While the neglect of the 1970s and 1980s was a source of debate during this period, it may actually have contributed to preserving Ljubljana's appearance. The lack of money clearly prevented the destruction of these Art Nouveau buildings and their replacement with the concrete and glass structures visible in parts of the city. These modem structures already show the ravages of time, only decades after their construction.

A negative feature of the Slovenian psyche is an inferiority complex in relation to other nations and ethnic groups. This feeling is unnecessary. Very few other cities, with the exception - of Paris and Vienna, have more examples of Art Nouveau architecture than Ljubljana and Maribor. The purpose of my photographs is to make Slovenians aware of the hidden and notso-hidden architectural richness and splendor of their capital city - Ljubljana. Hopefully, in future, they will walk past these treasures with a more discerning and observant eye.